The Weight Words Carry: On “Brown,” “BIPOC,” and other Transfused Labels


As many of our regular readers can observe, we cannot get enough of Sinthujan Varatharajah’s words in the magazine—provided that we are able to ask them a different question each time. In this specific contribution, they address the unquestioned transfusion of U.S.-forged labels, namely “brown,” and “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and their failure to aptly and usefully describe the political reality of other contexts— in Sinthujan’s case, Germany.

One day, I found myself in the midst of a space that was designed as a “brown space.” It was specifically designed for people who were considered from the region usually named “South Asia.” Most of us who were present were to different degrees brown-skinned. Some others, however, were rather beige-skinned, calling into question different understandings of what “brown” really means for different people, in different places and different times. Depending on our place of origin in the large region stretching from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Himalayan region, our melanin levels differed vastly. These differences didn’t seem to matter in this space though and how it was politically and geographically framed. We were supposedly all “brown” here. This communality was more than just a political idea, it also translated into a feeling. At first glance most people seemed cheerful and happy to see one another here, in a white European country.

Despite looking, at least to my eye, greatly different, most of us sat there, unified by an idea of not just being from a particular region of this Earth, but also of sharing a particular identity and culture in the West.

All of it was summarized by the term: brown.

This “brown space” was part of a larger queer event in Berlin. This event was specifically addressing what they called “queer BIPOCs” (the label was kept and pronounced in English). It was an event for people who collectively yearned to create a safer community space for people who didn’t just share queerness, but also non-whiteness. The latter was summarized under an English-language acronym that was foreign to the country the event was taking place in: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). The term originates from the settler colonial and post-plantation/enslavement context of the United States, but has been used by racialized activists for the last few years in Germany, too. While it was first imported as POC (people of color), and shyly made its way into the anti-racist vernacular of the country in the mid 2010s, it grew into BPOC shortly after, adding on the “B” for “Black,” when anti-Blackness was given more prominence in local anti-racist debates (similary shaped by discourses in the United States). In 2019 finally, the “I” for “Indigenous” miraculously arrived in Germany, too. How precisely wasn’t really clear to me, since there was no similar event that was covered in German media on an Indigenous people-related issue in the U.S. at the time. And yet it was somehow here. Within a few years, the term wasn’t just used by a fringe segment of anti-racist activists, but had to a certain degree at least even been successfully mainstreamed, so much so that some white Germans even use it today.